An American comes into a foreign place full of ideas of democracy and how he will teach an ancient culture a better — in fact, an American — way of doing things. An Englishman awaits him there, protecting himself against such foolishness by claiming to care about nothing at all. And between them shimmers a young local woman who seems ready to listen to either suitor, and certain to get the better of both.
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, was written in 1955 and set in Vietnam, then the site of a rising local insurgency against French colonial rule. In its brilliant braiding together of a political and a romantic tangle, its characters serve as emblems of the American, European and Asian way, and yet ache and tremble as ordinary human beings do. It also is a typically Greenian prophecy of what would happen 10 years later when U.S. troops would arrive, determined to teach a rich and complex place the latest theories of Harvard Square. Lyrical, enchanted descriptions of rice paddies, languorous opium dens and even slightly sinister Buddhist political groups are a lantered backdrop to a tale of irony and betrayal.
But that's not why I keep reading and rereading The Quiet American, like many of Greene's books, and have it always with me in my carry-on, a private bible. Certainly it's true that if you walk through modern Saigon, as I have done, you can see Greene's romantic triangle playing out in every other hotel. And if you think about Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere, you see the outline of the same story.
What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book's center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner's grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.
You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don't take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn't as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.